The last rites

PUBLISHED : Friday, 05 September, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 05 September, 2008, 12:00am

Japan calls itself a parliamentary democracy but, under the dominant rule of the Liberal Democratic Party for 99 per cent of the past 53 years, it has been mostly the former and a smidgen of the latter. That is about to change. Yasuo Fukuda's resignation as prime minister on Monday, and the handing over within weeks to what will be the country's fourth leader in two years, is the last straw for many Japanese. The party's days in its present form are numbered, and in its place, within the year, genuine democracy will arise.

The reason is that Japanese are angry. They are fed up with having entrusted their fortunes and future to a party that is no longer able to meet their needs. Japan is back in recession, solutions are not being found and the people are suffering. Mr Fukuda's surprise stepping down - apparently even his wife was not aware he intended to quit - says much about the state of the country, its government and ruling party.

Mr Fukuda was prime minister for just 11 months. His predecessor, Shinzo Abe, resigned just a year after taking over from the controversial Junichiro Koizumi. Whoever succeeds Mr Fukuda has just a year to revamp the party's battered image before elections must be held. No consultation with higher beings or reading tea leaves is necessary to know that the LDP has run its natural course. Its stay in power has been remarkable by any political standard, but the unravelling that began with the loss of a no-confidence vote in 1993 is almost complete.

This will be the case even if the popular conservative Taro Aso takes charge. As Tobias Harris, the author of the blog Observing Japan, explained to me yesterday, the LDP is too divided to continue to govern. The deep rift between advocates of fiscal discipline versus deregulation versus populism means that any LDP prime minister will face significant opposition to his or her agenda from within the party.

The party's longevity has been based on its gerrymandering of electoral boundaries to favour its rural support base. It has stuck firmly to its roots, despite in-country migration that now means the overwhelming majority of Japanese live in urban areas. Mr Koizumi saw the error of the party's ways and unsuccessfully tried to drag it into the future under the guise of economic reforms. He irreparably split the party, putting it on its present course of implosion. As Mr Harris puts it, the LDP is 'stuck between a past that is impossible to return to [as a party resting on rural votes, corporate funds and lots of pork-barrel politics] and a future that many members find distasteful [urban-centred and reformist]'.

He is in no doubt that the election will bring the opposition Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) to power in the lower house of parliament, completing a process that began with its landmark taking of the upper house in polls last year. He is uncertain whether it will be able to govern by itself; whatever the situation, though, the LDP's reign will finally be over.

There are any number of scenarios for what will become of the LDP. One LDP lower house representative, Hiroyuki Sonoda, has called for the creation of a replacement governing party with the joining of LDP and DPJ forces. Then again, the parties could splinter, with the progressive faction of the LDP joining the conservative wing of the DPJ, and the centrist elements of both parties merging. Or the LDP could simply splinter into like-minded smaller entities. Whatever happens, it will be a shadow of its former self.

The Japanese have a right to be angry with their leaders. The world's second-biggest economy deserves better than the instability it has been handed. Their government should be giving them the social and economic changes they long for. This is why the LDP will be punished come election time, leading to a realignment of the political landscape. Then will come the democracy that Japan has outwardly claimed to have but, in reality, has been prevented from attaining through more than half a century of LDP greed.

Peter Kammerer is the Post's foreign editor